About Michael Feigelson
Michael Feigelson has spent the last 15 years focused on working with governments, civil society and business to improve opportunities for children and youth.
As a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, Michael documented the life histories and worked closely with educators on three continents serving homeless children. He then served as a McKinsey & Company consultant where he worked primarily in the media and pharmaceutical industries. While his passion to serve children and families ultimately led him to leave the firm, it was during this experience that he developed a strong belief in the value of engaging the private sector as a champion for change – something he continues to promote today.
Following his time at McKinsey, Michael became a street outreach worker at Melel Xojobal, a local not-for-profit (and former grantee of the Bernard van Leer Foundation) in southern Mexico where he worked directly with children and families displaced by violent conflict helping them gain access to education and healthcare. After serving in this role, he joined the organization’s leadership team helping to transform its ability to advocate for children with government and local business.
Michael joined the Foundation as a Programme Officer in 2007. He then held the positions of Programme Manager, Programme Director and Interim Executive Director. Over this period, Michael led the development of the Foundation’s advocacy and programming strategy across eight countries and internationally; has been featured in media such as the Financial Times, CNN, BBC and The Stanford Social Innovation Review; and has served as a strategic advisor to partners such as UNICEF, the World Health Organization and The Open Society Foundations, among others.
Michael has degrees from Wesleyan and Princeton Universities where he spent much of his time focused on understanding the impact of social and economic policies on children and families; he has served on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Behaviour; and – most importantly – he is the father of a beautiful 5 year-old girl who reminds him every day of the importance, the challenges, and the joy that comes with a child’s early years.
Executive Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, Michael Feigelson, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss political engagement, diversity of leadership and support for Early Childhood Development.
Michael speaks passionately about engaging with global policymakers and diverse stakeholders in support of Early Childhood Development. We hear of Michael's early days as a consultant at McKinsey & Co, his non-profit work in Mexico and his subsequent rise to lead one of the world’s earliest and most effective advocates of Early Childhood Development -- the Bernard van Leer Foundation has been active in this field since the 1960s.
When asked about the tension between scalability and high quality in Early Childhood Development programs, he quickly points out that this tension isn’t confined to the world of Early Childhood Development exclusively; it is a general theme in life, in business, and in philanthropy.
Michael goes on to talk of their high scale work in Brazil, in conjunction with government and with the Maria Cecilia Souto Vidigal Foundation.
He is candid that along with scale there certainly are many quality issues being identified, but this should not prevent one from aiming to scale. Michael’s view is to go fast and go for scale, and work for quality in the meantime. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good – “the reality of scaling anything up is that it’s messy, and you’re going to have problems, and it’s going to fail in different parts.”
Michael notes that when driving forward programs at such scale and dealing with governments, you need to keep in mind that political contexts are fluid, and you need to get your program to a point -- in your window of opportunity -- where it’s irreversible and that means you need to get it big enough, so there’s a large enough number of people and constituents, from parents, to policymakers, to politicians who are invested in it. From “a political standpoint, pace matters, speed matters”.
Two tips from Michael if you’re looking to engage with governments:
(1) Government is a huge entity in any country with thousands of people. There’s a tendency to think about government as a sort of homogenous entity but like any institution of that size it’s not at all. It’s filled up with people, thousands of different types of people with different interests. In Michael’s experience there are always people inside government who deeply want to do something for babies and toddlers. And a lot of the work is just finding those people who are committed and passionate about Early Childhood Development -- it’s not about creating the leadership; it’s actually already there but just needs to be supported and augmented.
(2) Ensure there’s a diversity of leadership. You don’t want the program to be tied to a single political party; you wanted it to be tied to all of the political parties. You don’t want it to be just the national government; you want it to be the state an local government, too. You don’t just want it to be the public sector; you want it to be the private sector and civil society as well. So, you’re really trying to create a broad group of leaders who will all be advocating for Early Childhood Development in their own way.
As far as getting ministries to work with each other, Michael notes there is this insistence on having all the ministries talking to each other, and policies across all the sectors and somebody co-ordinating everything. Yes, once in a while this happens but more often than not, what he looks for is a good anchoring point to start with – either for a platform that already exists, or for a ministry that can act as the anchor, or for the top authority in the country to take the lead (ie the prime minister) and that’s the best way to get co-ordination.
The latter part of the conversation focuses on their Urban95 initiative, which aims to look at cities and urban planning from the vantage point of the height of a child – 95cm. If you could experience a city from 95cm, what would you change? Urban95 is active in more than 10 cities globally.
An interesting observation is that air quality came up as a key topic. About 93% of the world’s kids breathe air that is under the WHO (World Health Organization) standard today. And the exposure to polluted air doesn’t just have an impact on a child’s health today but also on their lung growth and brain function in the long-term. Moreover, the air is dirtier at 95cm (as opposed to an adult’s normal height); and to add to that babies and toddlers breathe about four times as frequently because they have shorter breaths than adults, so they’re taking in more dirty air than adults and they can’t filter it as well.
The key takeaway from Michael: Set goals that are far too big for you to reasonably achieve by yourself, because that’s what’s needed in the world and it forces you into a collaborative mode.
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